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President Barack Obama on Tuesday pushed Senate Democrats to support a grand budget bargain, even as the prospects for such a deal seemed as distant as ever.
Seeking to unite his party during the first of three expected sojourns to Capitol Hill this week, the president again vowed not to negotiate over the expiring debt ceiling later this year — even as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., was telling reporters that he hopes the debt ceiling brings the president to the table to cut entitlements without securing new taxes.
Obama told Senate Democrats he would continue to push for a deal that would shrink the deficit, trim entitlements, raise revenue and eliminate the sequester.
Those pronouncements encountered resistance from liberals, but the president pushed back against them during his visit to Senate Democrats’ regular Tuesday luncheon.
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, said he and Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., urged the president not to trim benefits. Harkin also pushed against raising the Medicare or Social Security ages. But the president did not waver from a proposal to change the way inflation is calculated, known as chained CPI, which would have the effect of lowering entitlement payment increases over the years.
On retirement and the Medicare eligibility age, while the president said there are other ways to find savings, he did not give an express commitment to oppose the idea, Harkin said.
As for the sequester, Harkin said the president sees a grand bargain as the way out, and if Republicans won’t come to the table, they will own the effects.
The meeting was part of a larger push by the president to bring the parties together — the first of four meetings with lawmakers in both chambers this week. He will meet with House Republicans on Wednesday and with Senate Republicans and House Democrats on Thursday.
But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said there’s not much to talk about on the budget until Republicans agree to more revenue.
“I don’t think there is any way to negotiate if it is a one-sided negotiation,” he said.
Democratic senators generally gave the president high marks for bringing the caucus together.
“It was constructive,” Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. “We are trying to be united, unlike our friends on the other side.”
“It was a workmanlike meeting where we talked about the importance of getting the CR done, getting the budget done, sticking together to make sure the path forward includes jobs, jobs, jobs; a balanced approach to deficit reduction ... and I feel very good about it,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D- Calif., said. “I feel we are on the same page.”
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said Obama’s main message was: “We need to get [a budget] done, it needs to be balanced and responsible, and we need for it to focus on economic growth.”
Democrats asked at least six questions, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., queried the president about his policy of using drones, according to senators. The hot-button issue got renewed attention last week when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., filibustered the Senate for nearly 13 hours in order to highlight the issue and the possible use of drones against Americans on American soil. Rockefeller noted the tension between the Senate Intelligence panel and the White House over the lack of transparency on the drone program, and he asked the president how to foster a better oversight relationship with Congress.
Other issues that came up included foreign policy and immigration. Gun policy, which is also being hotly contested in Congress after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, did not come up, despite the Senate Judiciary Committee’s approval earlier in the day of a bill to enhance background checks.
And Republicans aren’t the only ones who have been frustrated by a lack of attention from the White House.
Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus, D-Mont., said he was pleased with the discussion.
“It’s always good to talk,” Baucus said. Asked whether the president has reached out to Congress enough on fiscal issues, he said, “Better late than never.”
Democrats also discussed the more immediate issues of their budget blueprint and funding the government for the rest of the year.
On Wednesday, Senate Budget Chairwoman Patty Murray, D-Wash., will unveil the Senate budget resolution, which will include nearly $1 trillion each in spending cuts and new revenue over the coming decade.